Ceremonial Objects

The power or charge emanating from relics, ceremonial objects, and miraculous idols

The spiritual magnetism of certain pilgrimage places derives partly from various objects venerated as having sacred power. Examples include the relics of saintly persons, ancient ceremonial objects, and mysterious miracle-working icons, statues, and carvings.

Many pilgrimage shrines across various cultures have developed around the tombs and remains of saintly persons. This practice is widespread within Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. The traditions of these religions assert the belief that the saint remains alive at the shrine, transcending, at least on a spiritual plane, the reality of death. Discussing this matter in the context of European sacred sites, one scholar explains…

the reasons why relics of saints were so important was that they appeared to offer the ordinary person ready access to the holy. Saintly and heroic figures who had transcended the normal realms of human existence were believed to have entered into direct or close contact with Jesus and God. Although they had died, they were considered still to remain in and around their tombs, and their relics, their corporeal remains, were believed to manifest a very special spiritual power to which prayers could be addressed. Saints, then, formed an approachable and direct means through which ordinary people could have access to the world of the holy without requiring other mediating agencies such as the priesthood. (40)

The Catholic Church, from early times, greatly venerated the martyrs; therefore, their places of martyrdom often became shrines and places of pilgrimage. The relics of these past saints, be it an entire skeleton or only a single bone, were believed to have a healing and prayer-granting effect. With the passage of centuries, the church began canonizing certain holy persons as saints, following the authentication of miracles attributed to them. Relics were thus used as a means of sacrilising specific places.

Besides the mystic powers attributed to relics, they also have a symbolic power. Alan Morinis writes that…

Relics and traces of the saintly or divine also have a role in representing the ideal that is the goal of pilgrims. The individual who has left these traces - Buddha, St. Paul, Caitanya - epitomizes the human ideal to the cult. It may not be that he is a founder, for many relics are not those of founders, but that in his hierophany he was an ideal incarnate. The trace is a sign that identifies itself as such. It calls attention to the reality that the ideal has been achieved and is therefore realizable still. (41)

Many sacred places attract significant numbers of pilgrims, not because of the presence of a saint's relics but because of power objects and miracle-working icons kept within the shrine. These sacred items may be found in such forms as stones of ancient mythological importance, statues, and paintings of deities (some of which inexplicably cry, bleed, exude fragrance, or move their eyes) and ceremonial objects that have been used for hundreds or thousands of years. These items may or may not be available for inspection by the ordinary pilgrim. Some sacred objects are always kept hidden or buried, while only temple priests may handle others. Some are touched by thousands of pilgrims each day, and still others are shown only on particular holy days during the yearly cycle. Most importantly, the sacred objects physically exist, giving legitimacy and power to the shrine.